As American as Collard Greens

August 10th, 2009

can of collard greensMichelle Obama’s recent harvest of a healthy crop of collard greens from the White House vegetable garden made for an excellent photo op. It was a victory for fresh produce, but an especially great day for collards. Long derided and dismissed as trash food, collards have become positively presidential. This Monday we celebrate the historical and nutritional importance of collard greens – they’re the perfect way for you and your family to go meatless.

The collard greens’ promotion is overdue. Their pedigree dates back 2,000 years. They originated, like kale, their kin, in Turkey, migrating, along with folks who grew it, to Greece and Rome. Julius Caesar allegedly treated collard greens as medicine, eating them after banquets to insure good nutrition and digestion.

Caesar was onto something. Collards are a brassica, rich in cancer-fighting antioxidants. They’re also vast with vitamins. One cup of cooked collards offers your full daily Vitamin A, half your C and over 800 percent of your vitamin K.

Collards became a hit all over Europe and were introduced to America in the 17th century. They grew prolifically, especially in the South. While plantation owners considered collards weeds, slaves used the free and plentiful greens to make the humblest of meals sustaining and nourishing. Collards may never replace the truffle, but they’re not meant to. Despite their Mediterranian roots, they’re sturdily American.

Most of us know collards, if we know them at all, from the way slaves prepared them – as a mess o’ greens, slow-braised with pig parts. Collards are also a component of hopping john, a filling stew combining collards, black-eyed peas, which the slaves brought over from Africa . . . and more pig parts.

Collards offer nourishment aplenty, sans swine. As China Study author T. Colin Campbell says, "There are virtually no nutrients in animal-based foods that are not better provided by plants.’ And plants offer something animal products don’t: fiber.

Though frequently cooked until they surrender, collard greens are refreshing when shredded, porkless and raw. They’re a great substitute for cabbage in that summer staple, cole slaw. Raw collards save on kitchen time and keep you cool. Also slim — one cup of raw chopped collards has only 11 calories.

Now is the time collards flourish, and not just in the White House garden. Their thick but elegant paddle-shaped leaves thrive in summer heat. They’re fresh, available in farmers markets all over the country and cheap, averaging just a dollar a pound.

Let’s make a new day for collard greens a new day for us, too. Doing otherwise would be downright un-American. This Meatless Monday, why not try our Collard Green ‘n’ Bean Salsa.

Ellen Kanner is the nationally syndicated columnist The Edgy Veggie. She writes the Huffington Post’s Meatless Monday blog. as well as her own blog. She is also the author of Edgy Veggie: Better Eating, Blissful Living and the Broccoli State of Being.